“Yes, it’s good, but sometimes politicians will do that and think they’ve solved racism.” – My mom, circa 1979
Once, when I was about 9, my family was driving through a city that renamed one of its major thoroughfares after Martin Luther King, Jr. Recently chosen by my fifth-grade teacher to write a special report on King, I was pretty excited to see the street sign.
“Oh, that’s good. They named a street for Martin Luther King, Jr. He was very important,” I said as we passed.
My parents gave each other a look. Then my mom dropped that knowledge about performative justice.
Whenever I hear of surface-level anti-racism measures, I think of that conversation. Symbols are important, but not as important as action.
Is it justice if a city renames a street, but doesn’t invest in the communities that street runs through?
If a city paints Black Lives Matter across an intersection but doesn’t curb police power, do Black lives really matter?
Is it justice if a district names schools after Cesar Chavez or Dolores Huerta, but systematically underserves the Latinae students at those schools?
The legacy of white supremacy has such a strong hold on our culture that it’s sometimes hard to see past the performance.
Even though most of us in the dominant culture (white, middle class, etc.) didn’t establish it, we benefit from it and therefore are responsible for dismantling it.
If we want to establish true justice in our communities, we must address the white supremacy culture below the surface, even in our own organizations.
Have you ever wondered if a gesture toward justice is enough?
For a deeper dive into these issues, check out my upcoming workshop, “Intro to Disrupting White Supremacy Culture in Nonprofits” this spring. See all the dates and RSVP here.
Trigger warning: there is some graphic language about the violence of slavery and the treatment of Indigenous people.
The bedrock of the American economy is the belief that everyone can be rich if we just work hard enough. For example, if you’re poor, you must be doing something wrong. Are you too lazy to get a better job? (See also: health care.)
Why? Because. . . slavery.
Not Just the South
As Matthew Desmond writes in the 1619 Project, American capitalism is based on the plantation economy. His essay is titled “In order to understand the brutality of American capitalism, you have to start on the plantation.” In it, he details the unholy alliance between enslavers, creditors, northern textile factories and the US government. This alliance developed the US cotton market, on the backs of indigenous people whose land and culture were stolen and enslaved Black people who were brutalized, all in the name of profit.
How did these people live with themselves? How did they sleep at night, knowing that they’d exploited millions of people for their own gain? Where was their conscience?
That’s where American capitalism collides head-on with humanity. If we can deny the humanity of people, then we can do whatever we want to them. Kidnap them, ship them across oceans in horrid conditions, sell them like livestock, torture, rape and kill them. We can spread disease and violence across thousands of miles, uproot people from their ancestral homes and rip children from their families.
Aren’t We Done With Slavery Though?
This capitalist denial of humanity is the root of oppression in the United States. It continues today in the form of police murder of people of color, denial of health care, the school-to-prison pipeline, the emotional labor we expect from people of color, dangerous border camps and so much more.
To believe in brutal American capitalism is to deny the humanity of people. For example, if we truly respected the humanity of immigrants, we could never force them into dangerous limbo in tent camps in Mexico. If we truly respected the humanity of Black people, the police wouldn’t shoot first and ask questions later (if they ask questions at all). If we respected the humanity of Indigenous people, thousands of Indigenous women wouldn’t go missing every year. (Talking about women, if we respected the humanity of women, there would be no rape.) Here’s one I bet you didn’t expect: If we believed in the humanity of rural, conservative people, we wouldn’t categorically dismiss them as ignorant and write them off.
Capitalism with Guardrails
Our capitalism needs guardrails precisely because we don’t respect fundamental humanity.
(Hint: a federal minimum wage of $7.25/hour and laws that permit employers to fire workers for organizing a union are not guardrails.)
I suspect that if you read this far, you were hoping for some neat resolution. For a happy ending where there’s an intersection between American capitalism and humanity.
But there isn’t. The two are incompatible.
If we believe in the humanity of all people, we couldn’t possibly exploit them enough to maintain our capitalism without guardrails. Guardrails can look like unions, restrictions on the greed of giant corporations, a living wage, universal health care, student loan forgiveness, an end to subsidies for planet-killing industries and more.
I prefer to deny American capitalism (which is a difficult position for a small business owner). I don’t really know what the alternative is, but I know that when workers and working families have power, things get better.
So let’s get busy building guardrails and building power.
The end of the year is often about taking stock, regrouping and refocusing.
While election work this cycle was important, it reminded me that the real work of Organizing to Win is about more than winning elections. It’s about building power. That’s why in 2023, I’m doubling down on outreach to organizations that want to build or strengthen organizing infrastructure.
Organizing requires holding two sometimes contradictory ideas at the same time.
Creating the Vision
On one hand, we keep a vision in mind. I’m working with a staff person from an organization that is in the beginning stages of transforming their organization from direct-service provider to power-builder. To keep us focused on this transition, I often ask her “what does it look like when workers have the power to hold their employer accountable?”
That question conjures up inspiring, visionary answers.
Planning the Work and Working the Plan
On the other hand, even the most meaningful vision won’t become reality by magic. That transition requires a plan, with specific steps, goals and metrics. Planning the work and working the plan isn’t always glamorous or inspiring.
Working that plan is what creates the magic.
The two concepts are sometimes hard to hold at the same time. There’s a risk of getting caught up in our own visionary rhetoric and forgetting the reality of work on the ground. There’s a corresponding risk of getting mired in the details and forgetting why we do this work in the first place.
Visions and Plans in 2023
In 2023, I’m looking forward to working with organizations on creating visions for power and building their organizing infrastructure to achieve them.
If you or a colleague is thinking about how to expand your organization’s vision, let’s make 2023 the year we work some magic to make our visions of justice into reality. Comment below or get in touch to find a time to talk.
May your 2023 be filled with visions and reality of equity, justice and happiness.
Don’t you love Halloween? The costumes. The adorable kids. The candy. (The day-after-Halloween candy sales.) The silliness.
I especially love all the witches. And by witch, I mean:
Since June 24, there are a whole lot of witches out there. We’re marching, raising money, speaking out, knocking on doors, making noise and running for office. We’re also organizing.
When women, or members of any historically excluded community, take control of ourselves, big things happen.
And that’s what organizing is all about. Every organizing campaign is about more than winning. In the very process of organizing, we transform ourselves and our communities. We take control of our lives and our future. Ask any worker who has organized a union at their workplace. The change is not just about the legal ability to negotiate a raise or better hours. The victory is in the transformation of the workers and the workplace into one where workers have some control.
When I worked with women union members in Florida during an election campaign, it was immediately obvious which members had organized their union and which had inherited it. Many members at long-time-union workplaces already participate in campaigns and contract enforcement.
Workers who had organized their union felt the collective power because they had built it. They were the first to sign up for volunteer actions. Every single member in that unit joined the political action fund. They surpassed their goals for engaging their co-workers and friends in the campaign. They were in total control of themselves.
Organizing is bringing people together to build power. When we have power in our communities, we take control of the decisions that affect our lives.
Starting this month, Organizing to Win’s (OTW) mission expands to include white supremacy disruption consulting and organizing strategy coaching.
If you read the Organizing to Win newsletter regularly (thank you!), you may have noticed an emphasis on what is sometimes called diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI). While DEI programs are important, I prefer to talk about disrupting the root causes of injustice – white supremacy culture. While none of us committed crimes against humanity like slavery or genocide of Indigenous people, many of us benefit from their continuing legacy. It is up to us to break down that white supremacy culture and begin building a culture of justice.
While each OTW white supremacy disruption program is customized for the organization, key elements include exploring identity, building relationships and an emphasis on unlearning and learning new. Caution: light bulb moments ahead! 💡
Throughout my organizing career, some of my best ideas came when I could “think out loud.” I’m grateful for the support of more senior organizers who offered feedback and gently moved me back on track when I got diverted.
I look forward to providing that support to others. Starting in June, I’ll offer one-on-one and small group coaching. In these sessions, we’ll focus on talking through challenges, building skills and applying new training to real life situations.
To learn more about these ideas for your organization, see the newly updated home page. Or contact me here!
As organizers, Ash and Mira see our roles as bringing people together to build power. Ash is a senior resource organizer at the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights (EBC). Mira is the founder and organizer-in-chief at Organizing to Win.
Mira recently tuned in to a video interview of an alumni director that reminded her of a conversation with Ash about how similar fundraising and organizing are. Mira expected to learn about alumni programs, but re-learned a completely different lesson. If she replaced the words “alumni” and “fundraising” with “members” and “organizing,” it could have been either of us in that interview!
In both EBC’s concept of “resource organizing” and traditional organizing, we are bringing people together to build power. Authentic organizing centers the people closest to the struggle; in the case of EBC, that’s mass incarceration. Activists organize peer-to-peer fundraising events to leverage not just their own money, but also their connections. This expansive view of fundraising shifts who has power in fundraising itself, just as organizing transforms power in society.
To be good at both kinds of organizing, we have to build relationships and partner with members and other stakeholders.
Mira recently applied that lesson to raising money for a volunteer organizing committee. This ad-hoc group of strangers came together to organize a local action that was part of a national Day of Action for voting rights. After humbly bragging about her extensive experience organizing large actions, the team realized that their greatest need was money, not renting porta-potties or negotiating permits.
Remembering several conversations with union leaders about their mutual values of equity, justice and people power, Mira reached out to talk about the action. Several conversations later, she had raised almost half of the budget.
At EBC, the Resource Organizing Crew (including formerly incarcerated people and supporters) creates messaging and outreach tools to support members in their peer-to-peer campaigns. They created a toolkit, sample social media posts, and a webinar that walks new volunteers through how to run a peer-to-peer campaign.
The strongest campaigns start with the strongest relationships. Whether we’re bringing people together to build power or raising the resources to make it all happen, our ability to build authentic relationships matters most.
Building relationships and asking people to take action are fundamental skills for successful fundraising and organizing. If you’re an organizer, check out the EBC Resource Organizing Crew page to learn how fundraisers apply the concept. If you’re a fundraiser who wants to build a deeper organizing culture at your organization, let’s talk!
Ash Lynette (they, them) is a proud resource organizer in the Bay Area, California. At the Ella Baker Center, Ash works with EBC’s supporters to help folks draw the connection between their political work and their efforts to fund the movement. They love going on hikes, thinking/talking about the end of capitalism, and hanging out with their tiny dog.
Most of the people I know express unqualified support for Black Lives Matter and defunding the police. Me too. However — and there’s always a but — is that enough? The problem isn’t that our entire criminal justice system is shot through with racism, from the “suspicious activity” that is reported to police to the extreme inequities in sentencing.
The problem is that our entire culture is shot through with racism. So many of us learn from birth that the face of danger in America is Black. We teach hate and fear, consciously or not. If we (mostly white people) don’t actively confront that learning and unlearn it, we’re contributing to the problem. If we really want to disrupt systemic racism, we have to be willing to question everything we know is true.
I’m willing to question the truth that I have a comfortable life because I’m smart and I work hard. I’m willing to consider that I might have a comfortable life at someone else’s expense. Were my parents able to buy a house in a good school district because of the legacy of housing covenants? Maybe. (Although we are Jewish. A housing covenant would have kept us out too.)
I’m willing to question the truth of history that I learned in school. Do I benefit from history textbooks that portray the Nat Turner rebellion as an unjustified bloody terrorist attack? Or paint John Brown as a wild-eyed traitor? Or present Indigenous people as passive victims with no agency? Or devote a grand total of one paragraph each to game-changers like Malcolm X and Cesar Chavez (if they’re mentioned at all)? Probably so, because it teaches us that American history is the history of white people. (Note the glaring absence of women too.)
I’m willing to question my assessment of “angry Black women” who confront store managers or bus drivers when they’ve been mistreated. Would I be treated with the same hostility or dismissive attitude (over and over and over again) if I complained? Probably not. (For searing testimony about the effects of daily racism and sexism on many women of color, read This Bridge Called My Back.)
I’m willing to question the existence of “proper English.” Maybe that’s just the English that middle-class white people speak in the 21st Century.
Dismantling racism is about more than passing better laws and electing different people. We have to change culture too. Sometimes one leads to the other, but not by magic.
What are you willing to question in order to help dismantle systemic racism?